Friday, January 30, 2015

The best of enemies - New ‘rules of the game’ are emerging on the Golan

If Hezbollah and Israel avert a major confrontation of the kind that took place in summer 2006, it would show that both sides still have an enduring tendency to accept “rules of the game” to govern their contentious relationship.

In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s attack on Wednesday, which led to the death of two Israeli soldiers, many in Lebanon held their breath. Would this be a repeat of the last war between Israel and the party, which significantly reduced the number of Hezbollah attacks against Israeli forces? Apparently not, as both sides interpreted the latest operation against Israeli troops in the context of a longstanding “deterrence dialogue” and avoided a major conflagration.

According to reports on Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth website, Hezbollah sent a message to Israel via the UNIFIL commander, Maj.-Gen. Luciano Portolano, saying that it did not seek an escalation. It described the attack as an “eye for an eye” — retaliation for Israel’s killing two weeks ago of Hezbollah members and Iranians, including a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohammed Allahdadi, near Quneitra in the Golan Heights.

The Israeli attack near Quneitra was regarded as a transgression of “red lines” in the relationship between Israel and Hezbollah — and beyond that Israel and Iran. Allahdadi was not engaged in anti-Israel activity. While he could have been planning it, preemptive strikes are outside the unwritten rules of the game between Israel and Hezbollah. Subsequent reports that the general was being tracked through his cell phone suggested his was a targeted killing.

According to unconfirmed media reports, Israel, realizing the implications of its actions, anticipated a response and was prepared to absorb it. That it did not engage in massive retaliation after the Hezbollah attack, unlike Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government nine years ago, may indicate that these reports were true.

The details of Hezbollah’s operation are worth examining. The party conducted it near Ghajar. Ghajar is a predominantly Alawite village on the western edges of the Israeli-occupied Golan. Half the village is inside Lebanese territory. By attacking there, Hezbollah was playing on the ambiguities of the place, even as the party sought to reaffirm that it had opened a new front on the Golan.

Iran and Hezbollah have revived tensions on the Golan for several reasons: In order to conduct periodic attacks against Israel, after these were more or less suspended following the 2006 Lebanon war. In that way Iran could maintain pressure on Israel at a time of continuing Israeli threats against its nuclear program.

Hezbollah, in turn, saw an opportunity to hit Israel while simultaneously shielding Lebanon, in particular the Shiite community, from Israeli retaliation. And Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, while it may not be happy with the Golan being transformed into an Iranian card, sees advantages in maintaining instability there. It reminds Israel that things were good under the Assads, who ensured the plateau was the quietest of Israel’s borders — a message especially useful for Assad’s political survival.

Israel immediately grasped the implications, and while it has said it would not allow the Golan to be turned into a new line of confrontation, there is not much it can do. After all, it was the Israelis who first opened a Syria front against Hezbollah by bombing weapons shipments to the party passing through the country. More likely, Israel will accept a low level of violence as it did in the Shebaa Farms area before 2006, and will think twice before engaging in preemptive actions or targeting Iranian figures in the future.

Nor is such tolerance new. In 1996 the Israelis agreed to what was known as the April Understanding, an informal agreement that governed Hezbollah-Israel combat in southern Lebanon. The understanding was designed, primarily, to limit civilian casualties, but its implications greatly transcended this.

Negotiated by the United States, the agreement effectively legitimized Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel and put the party on par with a state, imposing rules that Israel would come to accept. On several occasions, for instance, when Israel violated the understanding by hitting civilian areas, its leaders abided Hezbollah retaliation targeting Israeli civilians.

Not surprisingly, after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 Hezbollah viewed the April Understanding as a model of sorts, its spirit to be replicated in other contexts. The Golan has provided them with such an opportunity. Israel may not be happy with the consequences, but its willingness to absorb the killing of two soldiers on Wednesday apparently shows a different face.

Rules of the game, no matter how deadly, have the advantage of providing predictability. Moreover, at a time when the United States is looking to normalize relations with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu benefits from showing to the world that Iran and its allies continue to threaten Israel.

Hezbollah can delight in what happened on Wednesday. It engaged in brinksmanship, and apparently pulled it off. Netanyahu warned of a new Gaza in Lebanon, but his focus was on containment. The rules on the Golan are still being defined, but Hezbollah took a step closer in imposing a new reality on Israel that its leaders had said they would not accept.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Obama refuses to adapt in the Mideast

These days whenever criticism is leveled at the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, one finds sympathetic voices in the United States defending President Barack Obama. The gist of their argument is that this approach merely downplays the responsibility of regional states for the chaos in the Arab world. Perhaps, but in the past six years the region has been through monumental transformations, at a time when the United States has irresponsibly disengaged from the region. Washington’s policies have been ill-adapted to dynamics in the affected countries. Worse, the administration has done little to adjust as its policy failures have multiplied. Most perniciously, it has misinterpreted its options in order to avoid taking action.

David Ignatius discusses the latest manifestation of this shortcoming with regard to Yemen in an article on this page today. However, the combination of American lethargy, the absence of foresight and imagination, and the refusal to think through the implications of America’s inaction has applied to most of its relationships in the region since 2011.

While it’s true that the Arab world would probably have gone through the tumult of recent years whatever the United States had done, the Obama administration could not have picked a worse time to extricate itself. In many respects this only ensured that the situation would become even more dangerous.

The reason is that the United States is not like other states. Its power and regional influence means that it has the ability to push countries in certain directions, in favor of a desirable agenda. President Barack Obama could not have done much against China and Russia at the United Nations Security Council perhaps, but he could have taken the lead in coordinating the responses of President Bashar Assad’s foes in such a way as to strengthen America’s hand, reinforce the Syrian regime’s adversaries, and ensure that extremists would not hijack the Syrian uprising.

Early on Obama denied himself a range of options in Syria. He dismissed the war there as “somebody else’s civil war,” at a time when the conflict was already having dramatic regional repercussions. Obama affirmed repeatedly that the United States was not prepared to deploy troops to Syria – a misleading response to a nonexistent request, since few actually suggested that American forces be dispatched to Syria to overthrow Assad.

As for the deployment of U.S. military power in Syria, it is the president himself who first threatened it if Assad used chemical weapons against his own population. Yet when the Syrian regime did precisely that in 2013, Obama accepted Russian mediation to avoid reacting, only discrediting himself in the process.

As for more creative uses of American military power, such as establishing no-fly zones over areas of Syria to protect Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s butchery, Obama never seriously considered them. This only further destabilized the region as millions of refugees are today living in neighboring Arab countries, with no prospect that they will soon return home.

At present, the Obama administration has shifted yet again, implicitly supporting a continuation of the Assad regime, and even Iranian influence in Syria. This was made fairly clear in Obama’s October letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which the president affirmed parallel U.S.-Iranian interests in fighting ISIS, and reassured him that Assad’s forces would not be targeted by coalition airstrikes.

Beyond that, Obama and his advisers never properly anticipated the likely fallout of the Syrian conflict, and its implications for Western security. The president made American successes against Al-Qaeda a cornerstone of his re-election in 2012. But beyond his search for domestic political benefit, Obama refused to look at the issue with greater depth, to see if there were incipient terrorist threats in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Syria was only the most evident of the administration’s abysmal responses to the evolving situation in the Middle East. But the president can also regret his mismanagement of relations with other countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Each was a prominent U.S. ally, but today all of them mistrust the United States, whatever the appearances, and Obama has done almost nothing to improve the situation.

Doubtless these countries themselves are partly to blame for misunderstanding American priorities. However, issues such as Syria’s war, Western normalization with Iran, and the viability of Islamist governments have immediate, even existential, importance for them, affecting their regional sway and domestic stability. Obama has not been personally engaged in addressing regional fears on all these issues, let alone defining a consistent U.S. policy toward them. He has navigated through a labyrinth of conflicting regional interests, but the American president has not reassured his allies or sought a way to resolve the contradictions.

Can we expect change in Obama’s remaining two years in office? The president is not backed by majorities in the House and Senate, which can only handicap his foreign relations. But it is also true that his withdrawal from the Middle East has not been unpopular among many in Congress or the public. Indeed, Obama’s catastrophic negligence of the region is a consequence of the fact that there has been no price to pay for this at home.

Nor is there any indication that the White House feels a need to act very differently today. But only a blind man or a fool would argue that the U.S. pays no price for the disintegration of the region. Obama intervened against ISIS on the assumption that something had to be done. The problem is that the president refuses to apply this logic in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

The region has suffered, as has American credibility, while the framework of American power in the region has been overhauled. But such transformations must usually be conducted carefully. Obama has done so recklessly, amateurishly, creating a vacuum that has only exacerbated the traumas afflicting the region.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Like father, unlike son: how Bashar Al Assad lost control

If Hafez Al Assad could come back and see what his son, Bashar, has done in Syria, he would re-enter his mausoleum and slam the door. Virtually every principle the late president sought to impose to enhance his country’s autonomy and regional power has been ignored by his successor.

This was brought home 10 days ago when Israel killed a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammed Allahdadi, in Quneitra. According to the Lebanese newspaper Al Joumhouria, which cited diplomatic sources, General Allahdadi was tracked through his mobile phone, and was reportedly assassinated only days after the establishment of a joint operations room of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian officers in the area.

As Lebanese journalist Hazem Al Amin observed in Al Hayat last weekend, Iran’s subsequent threat of retaliation against Israel was a way of saying: “In Bashar Al Assad’s reduced Syria I’m in charge.” For Mr Amin, just as Iran affirmed that the Golan Heights were part of “its Syria”, Israel’s elimination of the Iranian and Hizbollah members was a riposte to this.

This exchange of messages came at an interesting moment. In Cairo last week, opposition groups, including exiled groups and members of the so-called “internal opposition” tolerated by Mr Al Assad, met to reaffirm support for the Geneva communiqué agreed in 2012. The Geneva process calls for a transitional government with “full executive authority”, widely regarded as a mechanism to move away from Mr Al Assad.

This came on the eve of a conference in Moscow this week bringing together mainly internal opposition representatives and officials of the Syrian regime. Expectations of any breakthrough were low, and the regime lowered them further by appointing as its representative Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, instead of the foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem.

Lately, Russia has sought to move away from the Geneva framework. In reaffirming its importance, the Cairo conference aimed to prevent efforts to find any alternative path.

By hosting the gathering in Cairo, the Egyptians seemed to be saying that the search for a diplomatic solution must be brought back into the Arab fold. What could be taking shape is an emerging framework for Arab-Iranian dialogue over Syria.

In all this, one thing is evident: Mr Al Assad’s fate, like that of his regime, is entirely in the hands of others, both allies and enemies. Yet his late father spent much time ensuring that Syria and the Syrian regime would not fall into such a trap. Hafez Al Assad doubtless remembered, and hated, how Syria had become a plaything in regional rivalries during the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr Al Assad also remembered his own experiences during the October 1973 war against Israel. At the time, the Syrian president felt that his Egyptian counterpart Anwar Al Sadat had arrived at successive arrangements with the United States that had left Syria politically and militarily vulnerable, not least the Sinai I agreement of January 1974.

Dependency on the decisions of outside powers is something Hafez Al Assad consistently sought to avoid. The wily leader’s policy was, invariably, to put Syria in a position where others would have to come to Damascus to make political requests, placing him in an axial position regionally.

Bashar Al Assad never succeeded in replicating his father’s approach. While he borrowed a favourite tactic of his father in exporting instability, so that Syria could cash in on resolving the ensuing crises, he rarely fulfilled what he promised.

This was particularly true, for instance, when he reneged on a commitment made to US secretary of state Colin Powell in February 2003 to stop smuggling Iraqi oil on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s regime. While the president was trying to maintain Syria’s margin of manoeuvrability, he missed the fact that only by carrying through on his understandings would foreign representatives have an incentive to come to his doorstep.

Today the situation has been completely reversed. Mr Al Assad is almost entirely reliant on Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia, for his political survival. Syria has returned to being a board game for regional states – as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Israel and Egypt as well as the United States and Russia all play a role in developments there.

Worse, Iran’s interests and Mr Al Assad’s frequently clash. Iran has facilitated Syria’s fragmentation by focusing on consolidating the regime’s hold over a portion of Syria, from Damascus to the Syrian coast, including the city of Homs, as this is the only means it has to maintain control over the country. Mr Al Assad, in turn, would undoubtedly prefer to be given the means to ultimately reconquer the whole of Syria.

Similarly, for the Golan to become an Iranian card is something Mr Al Assad cannot welcome, as recovering the territory has long been a central Syrian national issue. Losing this to Tehran can only erode the president’s legitimacy.

For Syria to be under the sway of foreign powers means that any solution will only come through an international arrangement, with Bashar Al Assad’s future remaining uncertain. One can almost hear Hafez Al Assad groaning. It was all for nothing, his spirit must be saying.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Missing in action - The absurd uproar over two beauty queens

One of the more amusing takes on the incident in which Miss Israel took a “selfie” alongside Miss Lebanon came from a satirical publication titled The Pan-Arabia Enquirer (Its motto? “Spreading the hummous of satire over the flatbread of news.”)

The online publication published an article allegedly describing how Mia Khalifa, an American pornographic actress of Lebanese origin, had been forced to apologize because one of the four men in a scene she was shooting happened to be Israeli.

“I thought he had a strange accent, but he didn’t really say anything that could actually be considered words,” the fictional Khalifa says. “It was later when someone told me and I was totally shocked. You can’t even imagine my embarrassment and the shame that this will bring on my family. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

The howls of outrage among some Lebanese media outlets after Miss Israel, Doron Matalon, posted a photograph on Instagram that she had taken with Miss Lebanon, Saly Greige, as well as with Miss Japan and Miss Slovenia, indeed invited ridicule. Jon Stewart obliged with a very funny sketch. In commenting on remarks from Al Jadeed that Greige and Matalon should not have been in the same picture, because “Lebanon and Israel are enemies,” Stewart put on his best expression of perplexity, before blurting out: “It’s a beauty pageant. They’re all enemies!”

Lebanon can do better than be characterized by its pettiness over scenes that most other countries would regard as perfectly harmless. Last year we saw a different kind of indignation when Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun happened to bare her breasts in a film about a photo shoot for a skiing calendar. There was the usual gnashing of teeth, with some criticizing and many defending Chamoun, and in the end nothing happened.

Lebanon has many faults, but when it comes to morals (and the opposition to the Miss Israel selfie was, in many ways, depicted as a moral failing) thankfully it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Chamoun experience will most likely be repeated: Greige will never see the inside of a prison cell.

However, it was unfortunate that Greige felt the need to issue a statement on her Facebook page, saying: “The truth behind the photo: Since the first day of my arrival to participate to Miss Universe [sic], I was very cautious to avoid being in any photo or communication with Miss Israel (that tried several times to have a photo with me) … I was having a photo with Miss Japan, Miss Slovenia and myself; suddenly Miss Israel jumped in, took a selfie, and put it on her social media…”

In fact, one look at the photo shows this was probably nonsense. Greige hardly looks alarmed. She just looks like she’s having a good time, and that is precisely what pageants are supposed to give contestants. If the Lebanese authorities can’t stomach the idea of their young women mixing with Israelis, they can simply boycott Miss Universe, as they have boycotted other international events where Israelis are present. But, grasping how silly this would seem to everyone, they have not done so.

But let’s say that Matalon indeed “photo-bombed” Greige — what’s the big deal? If the Israelis are out to embarrass Arab contestants, then the best way to respond is with indifference. But more important, how did having a photograph taken with an Israeli suddenly morph into something much bigger than that? Did it somehow signal approval of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, or even, God forbid, recognition of Israel?

There is, and must be, a cutoff point between high politics and human relations. If, let’s say, a Lebanese and an Israeli were caught on a sinking ship and needed to cooperate to save themselves, I very much doubt Al Jadeed or the Arab League’s Central Boycott Office would intervene to exact punishment.

Nor has anybody who supports legislation barring contact with Israelis ever adequately explained what the benefits are. Presumably, those who seek to collaborate with Israel for political ends will ignore such legislation; while those who accept it ultimately harm Israel in no way at all.

Most Lebanese probably look at this entire incident as an embarrassment. However, they prefer not to express anything because, as the Arabs proclaimed during the 1960s, “No voice must rise above the sound of battle.” But let’s face it, the sound of battle after a century of conflict becomes a bit tiresome, and Miss Lebanon can be forgiven for letting her guard down.

Israel’s policies merit the most strenuous condemnation, but that shouldn’t affect personal contacts with Israelis, nor in many places has it. The hypocrisy of focusing on those whose interactions have been made public, while saying nothing about the myriad dealings that haven’t been publicized, is sign enough of the double standards surrounding this idiotic issue.

All I can say is that had any beauty queen, Israeli or otherwise, taken a selfie with me, I would have advertised it. And yet it would not affect my views of Benjamin Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon, under whose bombs I spent many anxious moments.  

America’s Syria plan is bound to fail

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Syria only twice. On both occasions he did so in the context of the American-led battle against ISIS. No mention was made of the cruelties of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, let alone how its crimes have driven extremism in Syria.

Despite reports that the United States intends to start training “moderate” Syrian rebels soon, there have been numerous signs lately that the Obama administration is changing its attitude toward Assad. Whereas it had previously insisted that any solution in Syria required him to step down, that no longer seems to be the case.

Last week, after meeting in Geneva with the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed support for a Russian peace proposal for Syria, saying it “could be helpful.” While details of the Russian plan are unclear, nothing indicates that it calls for Assad’s departure, especially as the Syrian regime has accepted it.

Kerry’s subsequent remarks reinforced the view that Washington is no longer insisting that Assad must go. “It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad,” the secretary told journalists.

The remarkably duplicitous formulation, by placing the onus of stepping down on Assad himself and asking that a mass murderer and his entourage should somehow “think about the consequences of their actions,” was immediately interpreted as confirmation of an American shift.

In Lebanon, a news item further lent credence to this view. The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt leaked to Al-Joumhouria that when he met in London last December with Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs told him that Assad’s removal was no longer a U.S. priority. “He’s staying for now,” Feltman said of Syria’s president.

The aim of the American program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels is not for them to fight Assad’s troops, but rather to fight ISIS in coordination with the American military. In other words the rebels, abandoned for years by Washington in the face of Syria’s army, are now slated to become cannon fodder in America’s war against a terrorist organization.

Only someone naive would assume that the moderates, if they ever manage to survive as an effective militia, have the same urgencies as the Obama administration. Almost certainly, those participating in the U.S. program would have been persuaded to do so on the grounds that the weapons and training they receive will eventually be turned against the Syrian regime. Washington will have to address this disconnect.

The Obama administration still doesn’t get it. Its Syrian allies, when and if they become a serious fighting force, will struggle to regain legitimacy if they are seen by Syrians as primarily focused on fighting ISIS and not the Assad regime.

Worse, with the United States not wanting now to be rid of Assad – a widely-shared view in Syria – its Syrian allies can only suffer as a consequence. This will push the “moderates” into a dilemma of either striving to appeal to their own population or to the gray suits in Washington. They will choose the former. That could undermine the cohesiveness of the rebels and cause them to slowly break away from the American grip.

What would the U.S. do then? Cut off assistance, after the millions of dollars spent to bolster the rebels? Abandon potentially valuable allies, and in that way lend further momentum to ISIS and Nusra Front?

The American scheme is so disconnected from the reality in Syria, from the suffering of millions of Syrians left to face a miserable fate for almost four years, that it is bound to fail. The arrogance of the Obama administration in this regard is breathtaking. Rarely has the United States been so indifferent to the destiny of a people subjected to the worst abominations. Americans have, understandably, been appalled by the savagery of ISIS. But how does one square that attitude with their utter disregard for the systematic slaughter carried out by the Syrian regime and its army and security services?

The Syrians are not stupid. Like everyone else, they know an American regional priority today is to conclude a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. It is increasingly apparent that one of the byproducts of this arrangement will be that Washington is less likely to challenge Iranian stakes in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. That was implicit in a letter Obama wrote last October to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Such an arrangement would little please Turkey or the Gulf states who feel threatened by Iran’s regional power. That means that the conflict in Syria is likely to escalate as the Gulf states attempt to claw Syria away from Iran. Their only weapon may be to help more hard-line groups that have been effective in fighting the Syrian regime. By disregarding such dynamics American officials are undermining their own stated objectives.

By accepting that Assad remain in place, the Obama administration is digging deeper the hole of its abysmal Syria policy. The problem is that by the time the true extent of American failure becomes apparent, Obama will have left office.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Hizbollah will not hit back at Israel. It can’t

The Israeli attack that killed several Hizbollah members and a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammed Allahdadi, near the Syrian town of Quneitra last weekend had many people speculating about how Hizbollah might retaliate. However, the party’s options remain very limited.

Attention has focused on one of the victims: Jihad Mugniyeh, the son of top military commander, Imad, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Allahdadi was the bigger fish despite some suggestions that Jihad, 25, oversaw Hizbollah’s operations on the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

There is nothing to confirm that the group intended to target Israelis, though there have been bomb attacks against Israeli positions on the Golan in the past. In March 2014, four Israeli soldiers were injured in an attack near the demilitarised zone. And last June, an Israeli teenager was killed in a mortar attack on a car, which Israel said was a targeted attack.

It is not clear if Jihad Mughniyeh’s convoy was hit by a helicopter or a drone. Initial Israeli statements did not indicate a targeted killing, and a source later said that the Israelis mistakenly thought the group comprised low-level guerrillas.

The Syrian media has stated that the Hizbollah members were fighting jihadists in Syria. That’s not surprising, since neither Hizbollah nor Syria has ever admitted that the party is operating against Israelis from the Golan. Indeed, in an interview last week Hizbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, strongly denied it.

But it would not be surprising if Jihad Mughniyeh and his comrades planned a military move against Israel. There are three reasons for this. First, Hizbollah seeks to maintain its deterrence capability vis-à-vis Israel to show that it can respond to any Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, Hizbollah needs to underline that its involvement in Syria has not affected its ability to fight against Israel. Mr Nasrallah made that point in his interview. And third, Hizbollah has long tried to link its attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms area to the Golan. The areas abut each other and both the party and Syria have an interest in tying the two together: the Syrians, to benefit from the military leverage Hizbollah gives them over Israel; Hizbollah, to keep the Shebaa front open indefinitely by linking it to the broader question of Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

Even so, after the summer 2006 war against Israel, Hizbollah was forced to sharply reduce its attacks in the Shebaa Farms area. The presence of a reinforced United Nations force in southern Lebanon partly hindered its actions. There were other reasons that made it difficult to carry out “resistance actions”: domestic divisions in Lebanon, the end of a Syrian presence that had protected Hizbollah’s autonomy, and Shia fatigue.

Mr Nasrallah’s denials aside, when the war in Syria began in 2011, Hizbollah saw a chance to reopen a front with Israel, compensating for its relative inactivity in the Shebaa Farms.

Yet Hizbollah had to be careful, even as it became evident that it had opened a new front. Both the party and the Assad regime sought to retain a degree of deniability for actions against Israel, maintaining ambiguity so that they could blame incidents on the generalised chaos in the border area. The ambiguity suited Hizbollah in another way too. It has long portrayed itself as a Lebanese national resistance force and could not be seen to have become a regional mercenary for Iran.

As for the Syrians, they didn’t wish to highlight Hizbollah’s role in the Golan because the Syrian regime itself has almost never used force to regain occupied land. Damascus only agreed to this after Syria descended into civil war and Bashar Al Assad felt that it would help his political survival if he showed Israel that his regime alone could stabilise the border area.

The results of this policy of deliberate obfuscation are evident: Hizbollah has found it difficult to advance a strategy that reaffirms its deterrence equation with Israel even as it has been deeply involved in fighting Mr Al Assad’s enemies inside Syria. Despite Mr Nasrallah’s claims that Hizbollah can fight on multiple fronts, the party is stretched to the limits, and the Israelis know this.

It was partly to dispel that impression that Hizbollah decided to open the Golan front. It was able to portray its Syrian campaign as adding a new dimension to its confrontation with Israel, while also isolating Lebanon from Israeli retaliation.

But if that logic holds, the party will have limited latitude to retaliate from the traditional fronts for last weekend’s attack. To spare Lebanon Israeli retribution, it will hesitate to do so from Lebanese territory. And because it has not acknowledged that its members were plotting against Israel from the Golan, it may also refrain from responding from there.

That only leaves an attack against Israelis overseas. But with the world now focused on fighting terrorism, and Hizbollah and Iran purporting to be on the right side of that battle, how probable is that? Jihad Mugniyeh’s death, like that of his father, may be followed more by a whimper than a bang.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Leave, but stay - America’s ambiguous attitude toward Bashar Assad

On Wednesday, the American secretary of state, John Kerry, met with the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in Geneva. De Mistura must have been happy to hear Kerry praise his efforts and that Washington hoped the Russian peace plan for Syria “could be helpful.”

However, the experienced diplomat probably listened more intently to another thing Kerry said. “It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad,” the secretary of state remarked.

Media outlets immediately noticed that Kerry had made no explicit mention of the need for Assad to leave office, long the position of the Obama administration. Instead, he stepped back and resorted to that tiresome American habit of appealing to the reasonable in foreign officials — as if the man responsible for the carnage in Syria had any interest in “putting his people first.”

Last week Tony Badran speculated that Washington’s “stated priorities in Syria align it increasingly with Russia and Iran.” If so, Kerry’s statement in Geneva seems to be further evidence of this. But one is tempted to go further and speculate about the implications with respect to de Mistura’s mission.

As President Barack Obama made clear last October in a letter addressed to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the airstrikes directed by the international coalition against ISIS in Syria would not target Bashar Assad’s forces. In other words, Obama implicitly admitted that the United States recognized Iranian interests in Syria and would not seek to undermine them.

In this context, the Russian plan for Syria, along with Iran’s reported refusal to consider Assad’s removal, is not designed to find a consensual solution. The aim is to take advantage of the global preoccupation with terrorism to consolidate the Syrian president’s hold on power. Neither Moscow nor Tehran may be enamored of Assad, but with no clear alternative to preserve their interests, they will stick with him for as long as they need to.

It seems that Washington is now also beginning to shift on Assad. It may have no intention of endorsing the president, but it is definitely reshaping its rhetoric to show that it will not push for his removal or encourage regional countries to do so.

America’s differences with Turkey over Syria, for instance, have been profound. Ankara’s ambiguous relationship with ISIS, like the fact that a suspect in the Paris attacks last week fled to Syria via Turkey, can only widen the American-Turkish divide.

De Mistura must be watching all this closely, as it will affect the way he formulates his own plan for resolving the Syrian conflict. Until now the UN envoy has strayed away from a discussion of Assad’s fate, knowing it could scuttle his efforts. But if he begins to see that America, Russia and Iran, all key actors in Syria, do not view Assad’s exit as necessary, or even desirable, his proposals on some sort of transitional governing structure for the country could end up being more favorable to the Syrian regime.

But de Mistura also knows that Assad’s rising confidence will have a bearing on his own proposal for a ceasefire in Aleppo. The stronger the Syrian regime feels, the less flexible it will be on the ground. With the situation so fluid in Syria’s second largest city, the UN envoy’s scheme remains a long shot.

A Lebanese politician offered an interesting take on the Syrian situation, arguing that an eventual alternative to Bashar Assad may be his brother Maher. At first glance the proposal sounds ludicrous. If any individual is regarded as more responsible for the regime’s brutality in Syria than Bashar, it is Maher. That the opposition can never possibly accept him seems self-evident.

Indeed, but the Syrian opposition with whom the West wants to deal is largely marginalized today. And no one really much cares what the jihadists think, since they are uninterested in any solution short of an outright military victory over the regime.

What Maher would supposedly offer is reassurance to the Alawites, Iran and Russia. Bashar’s departure could also serve as victory enough for the opposition to split, with some factions entering into a dialogue to end the fighting. It’s not terribly convincing as a scenario, but with Bashar’s opponents divided and Iran, Russia and the United States adamant about his survival or equivocal about his departure, these attitudes may open the door to outcomes nobody imagined were possible.          

It’s a pity that the Obama administration, rather than regard the Assad regime as contributing to and complicit in the extremism generated by the Syrian war, sees it as more palatable than the alternatives. It takes enormous self-delusion not to grasp that Assad has attracted the jihadists like a magnet or to imagine that Russia can devise an acceptable path out of the Syrian mess that all will accept.

American self-delusion is really the outcome of indifference. As the Paris attacks showed, no one is truly safe when a conflict like the one in Syria is allowed to spin out of control. The world is even less safe when Washington refuses to see the obvious.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Israel’s shameless hijacking of French Jews

If there is anything pure, unadulterated, transcendent in Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s his vulgarity. The corpses were still warm last week when the Israeli prime minister alighted in Paris to tell French Jews that their real home was Israel.

This reminded many people of Ariel Sharon’s efforts to exploit anti-Semitic attacks in Europe in 2004. At the time Sharon had declared, “If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: ‘Move to Israel, as early as possible.’ I say that to Jews all around the world, but there [in France] I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”

Sharon had added: “In France today, about 10 percent of the population are Muslims ... that provokes a different kind of anti-Semitism, based on anti-Israeli feelings and propaganda.”

Sharon’s remarks offended the French government at the time, and Netanyahu’s comments must have done the same. The prime minister posted this thought on Twitter: “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls took a very different tack, telling a group of French Jews, “France without the Jews of France is not France.” Against a message of religious in-gathering and separation, Valls offered one of openness and assimilation.

We now know that the French president, Francois Hollande, did not want Netanyahu to attend the march against terrorism last Sunday. He was afraid that Netanyahu’s presence would only draw attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Jewish-Muslim tensions, a divisive topic when the French were looking to affirm national unity. Netanyahu came anyway, because other Israeli political figures were attending and the prime minister saw he could score political points before Israel’s forthcoming elections.

Adding to the pettiness of the scene, the French had also advised the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, not to be there. Like Netanyahu he initially agreed, only to reverse himself when the French, seeing that Netanyahu would make an appearance, had to extend an invitation to Abbas. So, the Palestinian leader donned his fur cap and trudged to Paris.

It was all very cheap, lacking in class. Netanyahu seemed unconcerned by the interests of the people most affected by his statements, namely France’s Jews. Here they were, looking for reassurances as French citizens, and here was Netanyahu telling them to pack their bags. Yet some of them responded pointedly to his invitation for French Jews to move to Israel. At a Paris synagogue where the prime minister had just finished speaking, many in the audience began singing “La Marseillaise.”

Two thoughts come to mind, the first practical, the second philosophical. In practical terms why would French Jews really want to leave France for Israel? Simply because they are Jews, or because Israel’s future is one of hope, peace and tranquility?

If Netanyahu is counting on Jewish solidarity, he should wake up and realize that most people in the West, Jews or otherwise, remain reluctant to live in unmixed societies. The emancipation of Europe’s Jews under Napoleon was a historic moment in which they exited the ghetto and became full-fledged citizens of their countries. It opened the door for their gradual absorption into the societies where they lived, despite the differences.

Assimilation has long worried certain Jewish and Zionist publicists, who fear that it will lead to a loss of Jewish identity. Several years ago I was surprised to see that there was alarm among some American Jews with statistics showing that more young people in the community were marrying outside their religion. One would have thought this was a good thing. No one wants to see a community disappear, but in the West there is no risk of that. Most Jews have retained their Jewish identity despite integration, showing that it’s rarely an “either-or” proposition.

To surrender such an achievement to resettle in a country where the majority is Jewish, and where that majority continues to oppress a growing minority of Arabs, with no end or solution in sight, is a choice many French Jews probably have no desire to make. Europe not only offers greater long-term security, stability and social and cultural interaction under broad, consensual social contracts; it also allows Jews to pursue identities other than ones defined exclusively by religion or politics.

Philosophically, Netanyahu’s comments raised questions about the Jews’ future in the Middle East and the world. Israel is today a country increasingly criticized for its perceived unwillingness to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. In the last 15 years Israel has built a wall around itself as a means of protection. In 2006, Hezbollah fired over that wall, as did Hamas on many occasions since then. Israel responded by developing an anti-missile defense. The Israelis will continue to adapt to new security challenges, but so will their enemies. The rockets will get better and the tunnels will become longer. Israel, as it insulates itself further, will never be fully secure until its neighbors have an interest in helping to make it secure.

Is this Israel the culmination of Jewish aspirations? Do the world’s Jews really want to be part of a state associated with conquest, hiding behind an iron wall of remorseless self-protection, as the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Netanyahu’s spiritual father, dreamed? But Jabotinsky’s vision was static. It assumed Arabs would remain forever reconciled with Jewish military superiority and domination, and would not seek to reverse their own weaknesses.

Most people, including many Jews, can increasingly see this is an illusion. For Jews of the diaspora, their salvation and that of their children, is not to relocate to a country embodying such an illusion. Perhaps Netanyahu realized this when he heard La Marseillaise. He must have sensed that some French Jews didn’t appreciate the way their suffering was being manipulated to advance a political agenda, by a man who didn’t even have the decency to stay away from an event to which he was not invited.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Trouble ahead for Lebanon after double Tripoli attack

On Saturday night two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at a cafe in the predominately Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. The blasts killed nine people and injured 36.

The double attack raised fears in Lebanon of a wave of bombings. It is unclear for whom the two men were operating. While the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front claimed responsibility, Nouhad Al Mashnouq, Lebanon’s interior minister, said ISIL was behind the bombings.

On Monday, Lebanese security forces staged an operation to remove Islamist prisoners from a bloc that they controlled at Lebanon’s Roumieh prison and transfer them to a more secure location where they could be better isolated. The prisoners had access to mobile phones and computers, and officials are saying the Jabal Mohsen attacks were organised from Roumieh.

The suicide bombings coincided with reports from Syria’s Qalamoun district, which abuts Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, that ISIL has been gaining ground on the Al Nusra Front there. Whereas the Al Nusra Front appears to be focused on fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad, ISIL is viewed as a group that seeks to expand its sway throughout the Middle East, therefore whose primary aim is to destabilise societies to bring this about.

While the speculation in Lebanon about a new wave of attacks is not based on any specific information, the concern is not unfounded. As ISIL and the Al Nusra Front gear up for a battle for control over Qalamoun, or alternatively decide on a modus vivendi there, Lebanon will certainly feel the repercussions.

In the battle for influence, terrorist actions can often be the best way to attract support. And if the two groups were to unify their efforts, the chances are, again, that they would seek to manipulate Lebanon’s sectarian contradictions to build a following.

Two things are complicating matters for Lebanon’s government. Both the Al Nusra Front and ISIL have held around three-dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen for several months. They were captured during the battle for Arsal last August, and negotiations for their release have floundered until now.

A second problem is that the Syrian regime has reportedly been allowing ISIL combatants to cross over from the province of Raqqa into the Qalamoun district. It hopes this will lead to a destructive confrontation between them and the Al Nusra Front, ultimately playing to its advantage and that of Hizbollah.

But there is also a more cynical, and worrisome, interpretation. For months the Assad regime and Hizbollah have been seeking to push the Lebanese army into coordinating its actions in the border area with them. The Lebanese have resisted, realising this would be divisive domestically, as many people, especially Sunnis, are hostile to the Syrian leadership and Hizbollah.

By allowing ISIL members to enter Qalamoun, the Syrians could be putting the Lebanese government in an impossible situation: if it still refuses to coordinate with Syria and Hizbollah, the terrorist threat could expand. If it does agree to coordinate, discontent and sectarian tensions may rise at home.

Given the events in Paris last week, Mr Al Assad must feel renewed confidence. With the West preoccupied with the jihadist threat, the Syrian regime can once again portray itself as an enemy of extremism. As Mr Al Assad has repeatedly implied: “If I’m removed from power, the jihadists will win.”

This message has made headway in gullible western capitals. A few months ago Barack Obama wrote to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to underline that the United States and Iran shared an interest in fighting ISIL. Mr Obama also reassured Mr Khamenei that the Syrian regime’s forces would not be targeted by coalition air strikes.

Given the Syrian regime’s skill at building up the terrorist threat to create conditions that allow it to survive politically, the Lebanese are right to be anxious. Nor has the international community been shaken by evidence that the Assad regime allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place, and for a long time avoided military action against the group.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Syria was depicted as a gathering point for Europe’s most violent extremists. Hayat Boumeddienne, the suspected accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly, allegedly fled there this month. All this buys Mr Al Assad leverage, making it less probable today that western countries will insist that the Syrian president leave office.

The terrorism phobia in Lebanon has also been artificially heightened by Hizbollah, to reduce opposition to the militia’s involvement in Syria’s war. It may, similarly, serve to propel the army into a full-fledged confrontation with jihadist groups along the Lebanese border, with majority public support.

It is alarming that ISIL, the Assad regime and Hizbollah all have agendas that will exacerbate sectarian tensions in Lebanon. ISIL feels it only gains from sectarian polarisation. The Assad regime and Hizbollah want the Lebanese army to crush Lebanese Sunni networks assisting armed groups in Qalamoun, regardless of whether this damages Sunni confidence in the army.

That is why the Jabal Mohsen bombings were so disquieting. Caught in the middle is Lebanon’s government, which is trying to contain a situation that can easily slip out of control. But with Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah now riding the global antiterrorism wave, both see an opening to finally make real gains in Syria.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Going to extremes - The Charlie Hebdo massacre and Islam in Europe

The massacre on Wednesday at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris should be of grave concern to Muslims worldwide.

Whenever crimes like these occur, there are always Muslims there to condemn it, to tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, “real Islam.” Unfortunately, religions tend only to be as healthy as those practicing them, and the reality is that many Muslim communities today are in a state of turmoil, whether in the Middle East, Asia or Europe.

But blaming “Islam” for what happened this week makes no more sense than blaming “Christianity” for every abuse inflicted by Christians on their own societies or others. And yet the blunt reality is that, as Europeans have watched the panoply of violence taking place in recent months, they have seen that in most cases the perpetrators happened to be Muslim.

From the rolling atrocities carried out by ISIS in Iraq and Syria or Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon, to the hostage crisis in Sydney in December, to the Charlie Hebdo killings this week, it seems that crimes are being carried out in the name of one particular religion. And if this hijacking of Islam is unacceptable to believers — and most of them insist it is — then Muslims have a duty to reclaim what they consider to be their true faith.

This is more essential than ever with anti-Islamic sentiment rising in many European countries, illustrated most recently by the large Pegida demonstration in Dresden. Muslim communities in Europe are facing the risk of pariah status. While there are many more Europeans, perhaps a majority, who refuse to condemn all Muslims for the crimes of a few, it is up to Muslims to take the lead in averting such an outcome.

How might they do so? The representative of France’s Muslims, Dalil Boubakeur, pointed his coreligionists in the right direction in a statement he made on the steps of the Elysee Palace, after meeting with President Francois Hollande and representatives of France’s other religious communities. “We feel the need to do everything possible, each in [his or her] religious community [and] family, to mobilize the faithful [on behalf of a] feeling of conviviality, of [a desire to] live together, and at the same time of prevention,” Boubakeur stated.

Those are worthy objectives, but they are easier said than done. Muslim communities are as pluralistic as non-Muslim communities, and radical groups, along with their preachers, are never easy to marginalize. Worse, extremists often hold the upper hand because of their ability to intimidate the majority.

And yet Boubakeur is correct in saying that French Muslims must focus on propagating coexistence while also working actively to prevent the perpetuation of crimes. In this regard, there was a particularly poignant message in the fact that both the policeman coldly executed by the gunmen while lying on the ground and a Charlie Hebdo proofreader were Muslim. It is often Muslims who suffer the most from Islamic extremism.

The great transformation in the secular West came when religion was banished to the realm of personal belief and taken out of public life. Many Muslims accept this, but many do not. Perhaps that’s because Islam has historically been as much a project for governance as a guide for personal behavior.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was a logical extension of the assumption that religion is somehow superior to the rules of society, so that murder in response to religious satire is somehow regarded as justifiable. Most Muslims likely reject such a principle, but until they can impose the legitimacy of a separation of church and state on even the most recalcitrant members of their communities, deep problems will persist.

Part of the difficulty is that the European ethos contains an ambiguity. On the one hand it mandates freedom of opinion, so that Muslims are allowed to think more or less as they please; on the other, demanding that Muslims shut their religion, an essential part of their identity, away in a suitcase and unequivocally embrace secularism seems to limit such freedom.

Respect for the law can erase this ambiguity, but not everyone navigates the fine line in the same way. Just as freedom of expression allows one to insult religion, it can allow others to insult those doing the insulting. Nor is it only Muslims who miss the nuances. Throughout Western societies there are countless people who will defend freedom, for as long as that freedom doesn’t lead to attacks against what they hold dearly.    
The irony in the case of France is that it appears to be a country where relations between the religious communities are good. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last year found that 72% of the French held a favorable opinion of Muslims, making France the European country with the least critical attitude toward Muslims. The unfortunate talent of the far-right in France has been to persuade people of precisely the contrary.

That is not to say that all is perfect between France’s different communities, but it does mean that there is something to build upon and that the narrative of communal relationships need not be characterized by perpetual antagonism and hostility.

It also means that moderates in the Muslim community must be proactive in putting extremists on the defensive and upholding the secular values at the heart of European societies. At the same time non-Muslims must stop exploiting communal differences in destructive and demagogical ways, to satisfy their prejudices or advance political agendas.

The lessons are perhaps not that difficult to grasp. However, as communal tensions and incomprehension rise in Europe, they will be infinitely more difficult to implement. 

Behind the Russian peace plan for Syria

Earlier this week, Khaled Khoja, the new head of the Syria opposition in exile, rejected a Russian proposal to attend talks in Moscow to end the Syrian conflict. Khoja was right to doubt Russian intentions, but officials in Moscow are probably thinking in very different terms.

There has been confusion over precisely what Moscow wants for Syria. We know the Russians seek to hold meetings in Moscow with members of the Syrian regime and opposition groups, who presumably, when the time is right, would then talk with each other.

Some media outlets, including the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar, have suggested the format will be similar to what was discussed prior to the Geneva conference a year ago: the formation of a transitional government with executive powers that would pave the way to a new constitution and a presidential election. Al-Akhbar affirmed that during this period President Bashar Assad would retain control over the army and security apparatus.

However, observers have remarked that Russia is actually moving away from the Geneva format on Syria. The idea of a transitional government, no matter how logical it may seem given Syria’s realities, implicitly suggests a move away from Assad. Reportedly, this has not been well received by Iran and Hezbollah. The new Russian initiative may be an effort to hit two birds with one stone: to address Iranian displeasure and shape a diplomatic initiative that adapts to the new situation in Syria, where the focus lately has been on defeating ISIS.

From the perspective of the opposition in exile, this represents a potential minefield. Given the exiles’ limited influence inside Syria, any effort to integrate them into peace negotiations must be viewed with considerable suspicion. Making Khoja and his comrades part of a process could fragment Assad’s enemies further and heighten discord within the already largely discredited exiled opposition. This would ultimately ensure that Assad is recognized internationally as the only game in town.

Given international fears of the jihadi groups in Syria, such an objective seems reachable. The United States has no real policy when it comes to Syria, despite President Barack Obama’s promises to train and arm “moderate” rebel units. And last October Obama wrote Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to underline that both Iran and the U.S. had parallel interests in fighting ISIS, and to reassure him that coalition airstrikes would not target Assad’s forces.

As the Russians have watched American incoherence and gauged the depth of regional rivalries over Syria, not least the clashing agendas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, they have seen an opportunity. At the same time the United Nations has appointed an envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who has limited his ambitions for a solution, preferring to start with efforts to freeze the conflict in certain locations before building on this, without addressing the more contentious issue of Assad’s fate.

The Russians realize there is fatigue in the Middle East and internationally with the seemingly intractable Syrian conflict. Assad knows what he is doing when his forces engage in the massive displacement of populations. As is its way, the Syrian regime has created a regional humanitarian problem so enormous that governments no longer are insisting on his exit, so keen are they to bring an end to the Syrian nightmare. Moscow will exploit this mood to impose its diplomatic preferences.

Khoja’s rejection of the Russian proposal was not surprising. But circumstances will continue to change, and the weaker the so-called moderates become, the more likely they may be to embrace a diplomatic initiative to save themselves. And once that happens, the Russians would be in a better position to bring the exiled opposition, along with the so-called internal opposition, together with the regime in a resolution project, giving Assad new legitimacy. Those opposing such moves could then be denounced as “extremists” in league with the jihadis.

The more pertinent matter is how long the regime can last. While we appear to be in a military stalemate, Assad’s forces have been seriously depleted, obliging them to forcibly conscript young men. Even in the Alawite community the enthusiasm for fighting on behalf of Assad is next to nil. The Syrian army is not winning decisive engagements, and it appears that even its efforts to surround rebels in Aleppo have been unsuccessful.

The Russians must sense that their diplomacy is not likely to make much headway in the near term. But that’s not their aim. By putting it into circulation now, they have shifted attention away from the Geneva format, which the Syrian regime doesn’t like and which the Russians were unwilling to impose on Assad when the Geneva conference was held almost a year ago.

The Russians are also positioning themselves as prime interlocutors on Syria, and have been careful to make it appear that they are working in parallel with de Mistura. In that way, as circumstances change and the international community decides to move resolutely toward a peace plan for Syria, the Russians will be better placed to put their favored plan forward, perhaps in coordination with the U.N.

The Russians apparently understand something the Obama administration doesn’t: that for any anti-ISIS campaign to be successful, the Syrian conflict must be brought to an end. The Russians are seeking to use this logic to keep the regime in place, knowing that efforts to remove it, rapidly or slowly, will probably be opposed by Iran. With America unconcerned, the Russians have an opening, even if their plan is delayed weeks, months or years. What’s important is that it become the only plan on the table.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In death, as in life, ‘Syria’s man’ proves Assad’s folly

The death last week of the former Lebanese prime minister, Omar Karami, had an interesting subtext. Mr Karami was a prominent ally of Syria, and his political fortunes after 2005, when he last served in office, were a useful illustration of the decline of the Syrian regime and its capacity to tarnish friends.

Mr Karami gained national political prominence following the assassination of his brother Rashid in 1987. The brothers hailed from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Rashid was one of the country’s leading Sunni politicians, the son of the important independence-era figure Abdel Hamid Karami and a pro-Nasser Pan-Arabist who served eight times as prime minister.

Omar Karami became prime minister in 1990, heading Lebanon’s first post-civil war government. The end of the conflict was effectively based on a Syrian-Saudi understanding. It gave Syria free rein in Lebanon, but would eventually pave the way for the arrival of Rafik Hariri as head of government in late 1992, partly to protect Saudi stakes in the country.

Omar Karami served in the interim before Hariri took office. He was toppled in May 1992 after popular protests against the declining economic situation. The fact that many of Syria’s allies participated in the protests suggested Damascus had sacrificed Karami. After parliamentary elections organised by the interim government that summer, Hariri took over, gradually overwhelming traditional Sunni politicians.

Not surprisingly, then, Omar Karami’s return as prime minister came at a moment when relations between Syria and Hariri had virtually reached breaking point. President Bashar Al Assad had forced Hariri and his bloc to vote in favour of extending the term of Lebanon’s president Emile Lahoud, who was Hariri’s bitterest political enemy.

Moreover, Syria held Hariri partly responsible for the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbollah. Worse, the former prime minister intended to challenge pro-Syrian candidates in the parliamentary elections of 2005, and was more than likely to defeat them.

To many observers, this is what led to Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, effectively turning Lebanon’s Sunnis against Syria. Omar Karami found himself uncomfortably in the middle, having threatened Hariri before his assassination, even if no one seriously believed he was involved in the crime.

Karami resigned as anti-Syrian protests grew, then sought to form a new government. This proved impossible and the prime minister stepped down for good. As a sign of how low he had fallen, he was not a candidate in the parliamentary elections, knowing that he would be humiliated by his pro-Hariri adversaries. It was a stunning reversal for a Karami in Tripoli.

The final humiliation came in 2011, when Karami was momentarily touted as a replacement for prime minister Saad Hariri who was ousted by Hizbollah and its allies. But the symbolism in bringing back a pro-Syrian who was in office when Rafik Hariri was killed was too stark even for Hizbollah. There was some consolation when Omar Karami’s son Faysal became a minister in 2011, perpetuating the political line, but things were changing in Tripoli. In January 2013, Faysal’s convoy was attacked, prompting the aunt of a Christian politician allied with the Karamis to exclaim: “What are things coming to when the Karami boy is shot at in Tripoli?”

But Omar Karami’s problem was not the breakdown of deference but his association with Mr Assad. In Tripoli, support for Syria’s uprising is strong and memories of Syrian rule are bad. The Alawite regime in Damascus had always kept the mainly Sunni city on a tight leash, to ensure it would not affect sectarian politics inside Syria.

In Lebanon, where the Syrians imposed their hegemony for 29 years, they failed to leave anything lasting. Aside from Hizbollah, which has an independent political base, most pro-Syrian politicians and parties were marginalised after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.

Under Mr Assad, Syria seriously mismanaged its Lebanese alliances, alienating many of its oldest partners. In order to impose Mr Lahoud for several more years, Mr Assad lost Hariri and the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, both pillars of the Syrian order in Lebanon. This was foolish when the Syrians could have easily brought in another president as loyal as Mr Lahoud.

The episode spoke volumes about Mr Assad’s insecurities. Where the Syrian president enforced his will through threats, his father Hafez used violence in a discerning fashion. Hafez Al Assad was ruthless, but he was also cautious and respected the complexities of the Lebanese system. He knew that building coalitions in support of his agenda was always better than force.

Omar Karami paid a price in 1992 when his government fell, but there were compensations. He was a political fixture in Tripoli, and remained a perennial alternative to Hariri. It was his misfortune that Hariri was murdered on his watch, and his predecessor’s demise precipitated his own political end.

Karami was buried with the customary expressions of regard for a former official. Yet few had truly forgotten. He came from a distinguished political family, but will continue to be remembered, and denigrated, as Syria’s man.

Friday, January 2, 2015

America idle - The dangers of Obama’s lethargy toward Syria

A few months ago I was in Washington at a roundtable session to discuss American policy toward Syria. I argued that President Barack Obama would soon have to alter his approach there in order to be consistent with the one he had adopted in Iraq.

The argument went something like this. The Americans have affirmed that the only way to defeat ISIS is to reintegrate Iraqi Sunnis into the political and military life of their country, and in that way give them a stake in combating ISIS. The same rationale must therefore apply to Syria. Just as the Obama administration followed this reasoning by helping to remove the sectarian and divisive Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from office in Iraq, so too must it do so with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The people in the room, most of them well informed on the mood in the Washington power structure, listened politely. Then virtually all expressed doubts that Obama would do anything about Syria. Now, several months into the American military campaign against ISIS, it is becoming evident that they were right. The administration has no intention of being consistent.

On the contrary, increasingly it is looking as if the administration quietly regards the Assad regime, and with it the Iranians, as allies in the fight against ISIS. If there were any doubts, they were significantly dispelled in November, when The Wall Street Journal revealed that Obama had sent a letter to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The contents of the letter have not been made public, but a person briefed on it told the Journal, “It states that the U.S.’s military operations inside Syria aren’t targeted at Mr. Assad or his security forces.”

Many interpreted this as implicit recognition by Obama of Iranian interests in Syria. In an article last September I had speculated that the anti-ISIS campaign could lead to Assad’s removal from power. In retrospect, I see that precisely the opposite has become true.

The Obama administration fears that a collapse of the Assad regime would only create a vacuum that the jihadists alone could fill. This is hardly unrealistic, now that the so-called “moderate rebels” the US has promised to assist have turned into a figment of the administration’s imagination.

But there are also problems with this conclusion. For starters, it assumes the Assad regime will necessarily survive. Yet the reality is that the regime is weakening and has been unable to win decisive encounters, with or without its Hezbollah allies. It is also having trouble conscripting soldiers and has resorted to dragooning young men, even from the Alawite minority.

When Alawites are no longer willing to fight for an Alawite-led regime, you know things have reached a crisis stage. Worse, Assad’s main backers, Iran and Russia, are facing much more severe economic pressures due to the decline in oil prices. Given reports that Syria’s economy is in a tailspin, with subsidies having been cut, at one stage something has to give.

Some are suggesting Russia already may be playing hardball. A Russian diplomatic source was quoted by Al-Monitor as saying that when a high-level Syrian economic delegation visited Moscow in October and requested a $3 billion loan or line of credit, the Russians refused. While this could have been leverage to force Assad to go along with a Russian diplomatic initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis, it was also an implicit admission that Moscow’s ability to finance Assad’s war effort is limited.

Iran is Syria’s greater funder, but it is no less vulnerable to the collapse in oil prices. While there are no indications that its leadership has changed its attitude toward defending Assad, there are signs of division in Tehran over what to do about Syria.

For example, in November, Mohammed Ali Sobhani, an advisor to the Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to Lebanon, was particularly critical of the Assad regime. “Had the government calmed people and played its role, we would not have faced the current political and sectarian [conflict] in Syria,” Sobhani told Nameh News. That is, evidently, not the position of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, but that Sobhani felt he could make such a devastating comment publicly suggests the debate in Tehran over Syria is ongoing, and escalating.

So, can Obama be certain that Assad is solidly in place? And if he is not, is Washington ready to face the repercussions of the Syria regime’s sudden downfall? Were the jihadists to take over Damascus, the fall of Mosul would pale in comparison.

That is precisely why Obama has no real choice but to formulate a comprehensive strategy for Syria. If it involves backing a diplomatic initiative, in conjunction with Russia and the United Nations, so be it. If it involves working with Turkey to create a no-fly zone, and use it to ultimately overthrow Assad, better still. But doing nothing while remaining completely absent from all diplomatic initiatives is the worst possible alternative.

There is a big difference between avoiding the conflict in Syria and refusing to formulate a credible approach to Syria. The first is perhaps understandable; the second is utterly reckless. Obama’s astonishing lethargy until now has made a bad situation worse. It’s time for this most futile of presidents to wake up.